The God Particle
by Mark Sutherland
The search for God is over.
Scientists have discovered the existence of the Higgs Boson, a tiny, sub-atomic particle that permeates the universe, performing miracles, healing the sick and striking down unbelievers. As I write, scientists are converging on Switzerland in a mass pilgrimage to worship at the Large Hadron Collider, many bringing along elderly and infirm relatives who they hope will be touched by its healing powers.
Stephen Hawking leads the procession. There is a spring in his step as he breaks into a chorus of Ten Green Protons in his rich baritone, while the crowd gleefully joins in. Richard Dawkins is among them, bearing aloft a piece of toast, on which appears an astonishing image of the electronic signature of the Higgs Boson, perfectly rendered in marmalade. It appeared to him on his breakfast plate only this morning, and he knew instantly what it meant.
Above all, there’s a palpable sense of relief across the scientific community, that the version of reality they have been peddling for the last fifty years seems to have been vindicated. For now. But does it prove, as many have for years claimed, in anticipation of just such a discovery, that there is no God?
For people who claim to possess some of the greatest minds on the planet, Western scientists seem to have a remarkably naïve and childlike view of what the idea of God might encompass. Every time a scientist announces this or that discovery finally proves there is no God, they get a smug, self-satisfied look, and you just know that they are mentally driving a wooden stake through the heart of that capricious, white-bearded old codger, sitting on a cloud in Michelangelo’s famous painting, Creation. Or, more likely, some white-haired old scripture teacher who gave them a hard time at school.
This God is invariably human, vengeful, fallible, arbitrarily dispensing wrath or mercy, as the occasion requires – and invariably getting it wrong. If God exists, they often say, then why does He allow… (insert pet injustice here)?
They seem to have no inkling that, for many, if not most people, the idea of God has evolved considerably in recent times, through the influence of Gaia theory, Buddhism and other religions, and now encompasses a range of alternative views. Strict adherence to the Creation myth is confined to the extremist end of the Christian spectrum, while everyone else, bar the atheists, it seems, has moved on. Most modern believers, I’d wager, have no difficulty reconciling the co-existence of evolution with that of some higher power.
Historically, science justified its existence in terms of the study of nature, the better to appreciate God’s works. The Biblical injunction that man ‘take dominion over the beasts of the field, the fish of the seas and the birds of the sky,’ and assume sovereignty over the Earth’s resources, created a powerful moral justification for man to harness these resources for his own use. This is the Judeo-Christian concept of imago dei, which asserts that, since man was created in God’s image, His will and purpose is best expressed through man’s works.
It is this ethic that made Christianity the pre-eminent colonising force of the Enlightenment, and enabled the massive expansion of Western technological capability to its present status as the world’s most influential culture: the God-given right to plunder the Earth’s riches without restraint, in order to furnish ourselves with an ever greater degree of material comfort.
All people rely ultimately on natural resources for their survival. But, while Christian cultures tended to view nature as an adversary, and to celebrate its conquest as a triumph of man’s ingenuity and intelligence, in many religions a sense of humility remains vital to their continued enjoyment of Earth’s bounty. In many non-Western cultures, the sacred and the scientific are celebrated equally: prayers and offerings are made daily for cars and other machinery, for instance, that they may continue to function, just as they are for a good harvest or the health of loved ones. While this might be deeply unscientific, it nonetheless acknowledges the role that fate and chance continue to play in all our lives, despite our supposed technological sophistication. While welcoming the benefits of technology, the part it plays is nonetheless refracted through the prism of religious and cultural continuity.
Not so in the West, where, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, technological advancement has been a key driver of cultural change, often at great social cost. Up to the middle of the 19th century, these changes were invariably sanctioned by the Church as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the advancement of Christian civilisation. That no one much talks in these terms today does not indicate that this mindset has changed in any way, simply that, over the century and a half since Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was published, science has become the dominant partner, and Western society now bows to no God. Technological sophistication has become an end in itself, and our Faith in science and its works is absolute.
We are still relentlessly conquering and subjugating nature but, as a culture, we no longer remember why. Our guiding principles have become synonymous with those of science itself: rational thinking, relative values and other morally neutral terms that elevate utilitarian concepts like efficiency and productivity over human ones, such as personal fulfilment and the common good.
Nonetheless, human concerns remain as important as ever, and there is an ever-increasing fear among the general populace that it will all end in tears. If modern Western culture can be said to share any common moral ground, it would seem to be a nagging sense of guilt for our treatment of the natural environment, and the damage we, as a species, are causing it; a growing awareness that we are not Gods, after all, but, like the beasts of the field, still rely on clean air, clean soil and clean water for our survival.
But while the awareness of a need to find sustainable solutions to this dilemma continues to grow, few of us any longer look to the Church for answers. Indeed, such is our Faith in science that we are loathe to describe the problem in moral terms, but prefer to see it as a logistical and technical challenge.
But whether science holds the answers to the problems it has helped create, as many people believe it must, remains to be seen. Many feel that any lasting solution will only come from a fundamental change of outlook, by working in harmony with natural systems, rather than continually trying to subvert them. But, like the Church before it, science has too much invested in the status quo to begin changing fundamentals. For all its focus on technology and modernity, for all its bold opinion of itself, Western science is, in many ways, still stuck in a medieval mindset: conquering, exploiting and discarding with God-like impunity; the last defenders of the Faith.
Interestingly, the evolution of the idea of God has much to do with the evolution of science. Before the first attempts at agriculture – arguably the first applied science – some twelve thousand years ago, all the world’s peoples were animists. We worshipped the spirits of animals and rivers and mountains and thunder, exactly as today’s remaining primitive cultures do. The shift to agriculture precipitated a shift in religious beliefs. As man acquired greater control over his environment, so his Gods evolved to more closely resemble man himself. The Gods of Harvest, and War and Commerce began to appear. As civilisation grew, this idea was refined and limited to the one all-powerful God of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.
But when Galileo proved that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe, but revolved around the Sun, the idea of God became destined to evolve once more. In the four centuries since, science has painted a picture of the Universe in which man is infinitesimally insignificant in the wider scheme of things. As a consequence, the Christian image of God as an all-powerful man no longer commands the respect it once did.
But it wasn’t until man went into space in the 1960s, permitting the first aerial photographs of the planet, that we were able to properly see ourselves in this new context. Enter James Lovelock, a research chemist working for NASA who, in 1975, published his Gaia Hypothesis. Lovelock noted that the Earth itself, when viewed in situ, resembled nothing so much as a living, breathing organism, somehow regulating its own climate and atmosphere in order to perfectly maintain the necessary qualities for the long-term sustenance of life.
In other words, the planet was alive. Named, somewhat cheekily, for the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia provided the first convincing image of what a higher form of intelligence than our own might look like.
Naturally enough, Gaia was dismissed as an untestable heresy by the scientific establishment, who railed at the implication that a spinning orb of rock could command any sort of intelligence at all. Many ridiculed the idea, as though Lovelock were proposing the existence of an all-powerful deity who somehow inhabited the planet’s core. This is either disingenuous, or just plain dumb. As Aristotle noted, two and a half thousand years ago, there are degrees of intelligence.
All living things regulate their own body temperature, absorb physical trauma and repair themselves; they can identify and find nutrients and are able to reproduce. This is the lowest form of intelligence, a de facto definition of life itself, which Aristotle called Will and Understanding. It is inherent in all life forms, from the humblest microscopic organisms to the largest mammals. To accord the planet the wherewithal to do this is not to re-imagine the Earth as some sort of vengeful, medieval God, but simply to note that it exists consciously on some level, as an entity in its own right. As a form of intelligence, it may be no more sentient than an amoeba. Rather, it is the scale on which it is imagined that is significant: Gaia constitutes a revolution in thought to rival that of Aristotle himself.
Despite resistance from the scientific establishment, the theory captured the imagination of many in the burgeoning environmental movement and made a lot of instinctive sense to many ordinary people. As an idea, it offers a convincing challenge to the insensible randomness of the doctrine of Natural Selection, without in any way denying the substance of evolutionary theory. And, despite its ideological objections, science has not been able to disprove Gaia’s central premise: that the Earth’s chemistry, climate and biological systems share a symbiotic relationship that is complex, fluid and essentially enigmatic, like the nature of life itself.
To accept Gaia is to grant the planet a degree of respect, as we would any living thing, and to accept a measure of responsibility for its continued health. Though religion itself has become almost a pejorative term among the educated classes, the increasingly moral focus of environmental concerns across a broad spectrum of Western society, and the corresponding lack of influence wielded by the old, paternal Christian model, provides a niche that Gaia seems perfectly suited to fill. At once humbling and inclusive, it has the potential to unite our species under a sense of common obligation.
At any rate, Gaia seems much more likely than the Higgs Boson to offer a way forward. While science clings to the idea of itself and its achievements as the apotheosis of God’s creation, the Higgs Boson is really just business as usual for the scientific establishment. We are all now locked in to its vision, whether we like it or not. The world is overcrowded, its resources overtaxed, our financial and political systems strained. The nexus between science and industry has turned much of the planet into a giant industrial accident just waiting to happen and, for many, the fear of impending cataclysm, be it industrial, political or environmental, is ever present.
Perhaps it won’t happen. Perhaps science will discover the magic bullet that provides renewable energy at no cost to the environment, an end to all wars, a cure for all disease and a way to control our climate. Perhaps Western culture will not over-reach, but will one day rule the Universe, and we will all live forever and fly to distant galaxies for our holidays.
Or perhaps we will just muddle along, allowing computers to assume more of our day to day responsibilities, while the rivers and seas choke up with rubbish and the air becomes unbreathable. No doubt science will have invented edible plastics by then, and million-year concrete to contain toxic spills, and we will all live underground to avoid the deadly radiation pounding through the depleted atmosphere. But it will be alright, because, thanks to the Higgs Boson, discovered on that glorious day in 2012, our computer power will be unsurpassed, allowing commerce and pornography to continue without pause.
Einstein predicted, in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, that the next war would be fought with weapons of unimaginable destructive power. The war after that, he said, will be fought with sticks and stones.
If he’s right, perhaps, as a species, we will come full circle, from animism back to animism in a little over twelve millennia. Perhaps then Gaia will make sense. Perhaps then we will understand that our innate need to find moral purpose in our lives is not some vestige of primitive ignorance, but a unique responsibility that we alone on Earth have been entrusted with.
Perhaps then we will see that the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the seas are not man’s sole dominion but, like ourselves, are part of something bigger, whose ultimate purpose we can only imagine. If the planet is alive, for instance, how might it reproduce? We may even discover that the solar system, the galaxy, the very Universe, are all self-regulating organisms: an infinite hierarchy of life ascending in ever increasing circles, from the tiniest amoeba to the edges of farthest space.
– Mark Sutherland
Mark Sutherland’s website www.marksutherlandart.com